Hoosiers may rank the attributes of an engaged and civic citizen differently, but most would generally agree on the overall list.
Good citizens tend to volunteer, attend public meetings and forums, learn from various sources of information, help their neighbors, join service or religious organizations, donate to charities and maybe write letters to the editor of their local newspaper.
Some attend elections, acts that can range from being a poll worker to collecting signatures for a ballot initiative or advocating for a certain issue.
In all of these expressions of citizenship, residents of Indiana rank very well compared to those of other states, or have improved over the past decade. The recently released 2021 Indiana Civic Health Index – a biennial study by the Indiana Bar Foundation, Indiana University, IUPUI, Indiana Supreme Court and state and national citizenship organizations – identified these trends in Hoosier’s activities.
The Civic Health Index Coalition was also successful in working with the Indiana General Assembly to establish an Indiana Civic Education Commission and require all Hoosier middle school students to take one semester of civics classes. The Legislature eagerly enshrined these commitments in law last year.
Indiana looks good, right?
Well, there is one more thing. In fact, it is the most important of all, when it comes to civic health.
Indiana is not a leader in encouraging voter turnout. In fact, the politicians who run the state government are taking steps to prevent voter turnout.
In 2019, the Indiana Civic Health Index issued two recommendations. One led to the Civic Education Commission and the civics course for middle school students. The second read, “As we head into the 2020 election, Indiana should aspire to dramatically increase voter turnout, with the goal of moving from Top 10 to Top 10 states.”
This does not happen. Indiana saw record turnout in the 2020 Biden-Trump election, but still trails nearly every other state. Indiana ranked 38th in the 2012 presidential election, fell to 41st in 2016, and then to 46th in 2020, the Index reports. Indiana improved its turnout in the midterm elections slightly, from 48th in 2010 to 33rd in 2018, but it’s still in the bottom half. Voter registration rates increased slightly from 65.1% of eligible adults in 2010 to 65.3% in 2019.
Indiana is far behind. It is likely to stay that way. The single-party legislature is more motivated to increase barriers to voting than to increase voter turnout.
A Republican-backed bill in the Indiana House is one of many examples. House Bill 1116 would require Indiana voters requesting an absentee ballot to swear under penalty of perjury that they cannot vote in person at any time during the 28 days before Election Day. As one of the few Statehouse Democrats pointed out, a single parent with multiple children may have childcare commitments and an inflexible work schedule, making it difficult to predict whether they will be able to go to the polls.
Tim Wesco, a Republican representative from Osceola who sponsored the bill, explained why during the Statehouse hearing on Tuesday, as reported by The Associated Press.
“I think the best policy is to encourage people to vote in person, whether it’s Election Day or in person early, as much as possible,” Wesco said.
Tonya Pfaff, a Democrat representing Terre Haute, wondered: “Why [or] why do I physically need to stand there and press a button, when I can spend time at home researching my candidates, seeing their policies? I don’t understand the philosophy of why I have to stay here.
It is not the non-existent problem of widespread electoral fraud. After all, Indiana cast 600,000 mail-in ballots in 2020 (3 1/2 times more than in 2016) alongside 1.3 million in-person votes, and Republican incumbent Donald Trump — who claims to Wrong that widespread voter fraud gave Democrat Joe Biden the presidency by 7 million votes – still solidly carried the Hoosier state. Republicans also won state legislative seats, retained their supermajorities, and won an unusually close congressional race and two other statewide races. So there is clearly no widespread voter fraud problem to be solved.
House Bill 1116 will not help Indiana’s low voter turnout, as will several other restrictive Indiana election laws. Nor will the integrity of Indiana’s already secure elections change.
“If you’re setting election policy in a state that’s mired in the bottom 10 for turnout, shouldn’t any change in policy be analyzed through the prism of whether it encourages or discourages turnout?” said Bill Moreau, president and founder of the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation and contributor to the Civic Health Index.
Most Hoosiers want to avoid going to jail and won’t risk having their personal timelines scrutinized for their decision to seek an absentee ballot.
Indiana could encourage voting in several ways, just as other states have successfully done, Moreau said. These include extending voting hours on Election Day past 6 p.m., no-excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration through any Bureau of Motor Vehicle transaction, same-day voter registration, and postal voting. Alas, Indiana is “going in the wrong direction” on such options, Moreau said.
Placing polling stations on college campuses would “undoubtedly” increase youth voting, Moreau said. Vigo County set a good example in this category on Friday, when the Elections Committee retained a polling center at Indiana State University for the 2022 election. voter registration among high school students. Some states allow 16 and 17 year olds to “pre-register”.
“Study after study shows that if you engage citizens at an early age, they’re more likely to stay engaged,” Moreau said. “You find very, very few first-time voters in the over-60 age group.”
Finally, the legislative constituencies drawn by politicians representing some of these constituencies create uncontested and unbalanced elections. In the Civic Health Index’s survey of non-voting Hoosiers, 28.4% skipped the polls in 2020 because they “felt my vote wouldn’t make a difference.”
Indiana leaders should try to change these people’s minds.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]